Japan Atlas: Festivals


Date: Every six years

Place: Suwa Taisha, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture

Number of Visitors: 1,780,000

Huge Logs Ridden Down Perilous Slopes and Hauled by Manpower at the Risk of People's Lives.

The Onbashira Festival has been held every six years for 1,200 years when the shrine's buildings of Suwa Taisha are rebuilt at Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture, in the Chubu region of Japan. It last took place in 1998 and will next take place in 2004. The climax of the festival consists of the Kiotoshi (young men ride the logs as they slide down a steep slope) and the Tate Onbashira (later as they are raised as pillars). The Tate Onbashira is particularly well-known because it was presented at the opening ceremony of the Nagano Olympics in 1998. The Onbashira Festival is also known as one of Japan's big three fanciful festivals.

Suwa Taisha has four shrine buildings. For the Onbashira Festival, huge trees are cut from the forest. Each shrine building requires four pillars, one at each corner, so a total of 16 pillars are erected. These huge pillars are called "Onbashira" and mark off the sacred space of the shrine.

The festival consists of two parts that take place over a two-month period: Yamadashi (pulling Onbashira trunks out of the mountains) and Satobiki (hauling the Onbashira trees to the shrine's grounds). During this time a festive mood prevails over the whole Suwa area.

When the festival was last held in 1998, it attracted about 1.78 million people.

In the Yamadashi, which takes place at the beginning of April, 16 tree trunks are brought from the forest. They are cut from 200-year-old Japanese fir trees. The largest are 1 meter across (1.1 yd.), weighing around 12 t and measuring about 16 m long (17.5 yd.). In the Kiotoshi, a part of Yamadashi, people sit on the onbashira and slide down a steep 30- to 40- degree slope that measures about 100 m (110 yd.). This is the most exciting spectacle of the festival at the risk of people's lives.

The trunks are rested for about a month until the Satobiki Festival at the beginning of May, when they are taken to the shrine precincts and erected as Onbashira.

It takes 3 days to move the trunks a total of 10 kilometers (about 6 miles). Special songs are sung as people haul the trunks. Besides hauling the Onbashira, other festivities include the "samurai" cavalcade and a dance with traditional flower arranged hats spreads over a wide area in parades.

At the culmination of the festival, the Onbashira arrive at the shrine buildings to be erected in the Tate Onbashira. Two ropes are wrapped around each onbashira and they are pulled into an upright position with young men sitting on them. The young men who remain at the top of the onbashira as it rises 16 meters above the ground, perform some feats.

The completion of Tate Onbashira brings to an end a festival that, including time for preparation, lasts three years.

Photo: Tate Onbashira (later as they are raised as pillars) (Nagano Prefecture)

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